Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ Brings an Animated Classic to Life With Much Color and Little Else

Aladdin,” Disney’s latest live action revival of a 90s classic, has most of the songs, the basics of the plot and a big blue genie. But it also leaves us wondering why we even need it. The 1992 original remains a standard childhood movie-watching experience, with songs like “A Whole New World” still embedded in the public consciousness. This new version, directed by well-known cinema stylist Guy Ritchie, looks expensive and hits the plot points of the first movie one by one, yet despite the color and occasional energy it’s more of a quick theme park ride, with the best attraction being a wish-granting Will Smith.

You know this story by heart. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a poor “street rat” stealing among the markets of the fictional city of Agrabah. His only companion is his faithful monkey Abu until one day Aladdin bumps into a beautiful girl who he takes to be a fellow peasant. Alas, it is actually the runaway Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), daughter of the local Sultan (Navid Negahban), who is courting possible suitors for his only royal offspring. When her identity is exposed Aladdin falls into despair, because royal ladies don’t want broke men. Then the scheming Royal Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) recruits Aladdin to sneak into the forbidden Cave of Wonders and steal a magic lamp. But of course Abu tries to snatch a diamond and in a rage the cave collapses, trapping Aladdin who soon discovers the lamp contains a Genie (Smith). Discovering he is now master of the Genie and granted three wishes, Aladdin proceeds to escape from the cave (with that all-essential magical flying carpet), and ask Genie to turn him into a prince. Now fronting as the slick Prince Ali Ababwa, Aladdin returns to Agrabah to woo Jasmine, but Jafar is waiting in the wings as well.

If what you seek is Disney recycling a classic for live-action consumption, then “Aladdin” more or less delivers as promised. The question is if that should be enough. Under the direction of Richie, best known for indie romps like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and flashy action movies like “Sherlock Holmes,” “Aladdin” never moves beyond mere eye candy. The budget gets ahead of the storytelling. Agrabah looks like a retro Bollywood set, or like the Middle East-themed telenovelas now in vogue in Brazil. The costumes are intricate rainbows of color splashed all over the screen, and yet much of it feels too artificial. Never does Agrabah come alive as a real place, instead always having the feel of a well-furnished soundstage. Even the talking sand tiger head, marking the entrance to the Cave of Wonders, so memorable in the animated original becomes a big, Disneyland-worthy prop here.

Keep in mind a gig like “Aladdin” is a different sort of undertaking for a director like Richie, who is expected to make the production Disney has tasked him with look good. The old song and dance numbers from the original are back and given the contemporary CGI treatment. But there’s a magic to what animation can do, that being it can shows us anything, so numbers like “Friend Like Me” and “A Whole New World” are pleasant and fun, but not as awe-inspiring or exhilarating as their animated predecessor. The magic carpet ride sequence lacks the sheer romantic ambiance and immersive feeling. Even Aladdin’s grand entrance into Agrabah as Prince Ali Ababwa lacks the wild creativity of the original, instead coming across like a rather confined, lumbering stage number with lots of big turbans and a few belly dancers. Will Smith gives it some zest but can’t do much other than stick to the same spot in front of the array of giant props. Some of these numbers also feel rushed with few proper transitions. For example the Prince Ali sequence simply begins, without the introduction in the original where the Sultan hears the commotion and runs to peek from a balcony. Characters are rarely allowed to breath and form. We never get to spend any private time with Jafar as he schemes, maybe because the obnoxious parrot minion Iago is reduced to a regular, one-line screeching pet. Naomi Scott’s Jasmine never seems truly rebellious or conflicted about her confinement and imposed duty to marry, just bored. Mena Massoud’s Aladdin lacks the necessary charm of a sharp street survivor, instead coming across as a bit hopeless. Inevitably these two lack palpable onscreen chemistry. What makes them desire each other is something left to us to ponder. Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar also never manages to come across as a truly sly, ruthless plotter, more like a frustrated, whining court jester.

“Aladdin” has two notable elements that do stand out. First there’s Will Smith as the Genie. When footage of Smith first emerged as the blue cosmic entity there were some scoffs online. Yet he brings some needed zest and endearing humor to the role, never even dreaming of attempting to replicate the original, unforgettable performance by Robin Williams. Smith also adds his own flourishes to the songs, making the lines his own. A man born with perfect comedic timing, Smith makes the dialogue in the screenplay by John August feel funny in a buddy movie way. The second admirable quality is that this “Aladdin” tries to update sections of the story with statements on freedom of will. Jasmine’s best scene is when she sings a new number, “Speechless,” which is against the patriarchy of her world (it could have used a better lead-up though). And while there’s still some typical orientalism around, at least we get actors of actual Middle Eastern heritage playing most of the roles. Alan Menken updates his score with more Middle Eastern sounds mixed into the lush melodies.

It cannot be denied that Disney knows much of its audience well. “Aladdin” for many viewers will no doubt provide a sugary dose of escapism. Some will adore it based on nostalgia for these songs and characters we have grown up with. But with filmmakers like Jon Favreau and Bill Condon delivering well-crafted remakes of “The Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast,” both retaining what was great about the originals while being imaginative in their live-action takes, Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin” is all about colorful surfaces. Like a subpar song cover, what it achieves is in making us understand why we like the original so much.

Aladdin” opens May 24 in theaters nationwide.